Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.
Five years ago, I would have given absolutely anything to see myself today.
November 20, 2014, was the day I discovered that there was a lot about my marriage, and my husband, that I didn’t know. It was the day that the life I thought I was living suddenly slipped between my fingertips and disappeared.
It was all hard, at first. The brutality of it. The shame of it. The white-hot incandescent rage of being treated as disposable. The tawdriness of the whole thing. The sudden plunge into single parenting. So much of it was hard, but the divorce? Oh god.
Louis CK is problematic in many ways, but he had it right when he said that divorce is always good news.
I’d always heard that relationships took hard work, so when I got into my first real one at age 18, that’s what I resolved to do. My parents had recently split up and that wasn’t going to be me. No, when I married, it was going to be forever.
So I worked, you know? For the next thirteen years, I bought the books and did the research and read the articles and went to the counsellors. And while I still agree that relationships are hard work and everything good in this life is worth working for, not enough people tell you that the work should be rewarding. Your efforts should amount to something. And you shouldn’t be doing that work alone – reading the books alone and going to counselling alone and doggedly trying to push a relationship up a steep hill and blaming yourself when you can’t make it to the top.
I’ve always found it hard to write about my divorce and today is no different. Partly because it’s really hard to write about something when you’re in it. Partly because this story also involves someone else and I don’t know how to tell my story without also telling pieces of his. Partly because I truly don’t think anyone ever knows what goes on in a marriage except the two people in it, and even then, a situation can look radically different from opposite ends of the table.
I’ve also felt frustrated, however, at the expectation that I should always take the high road. This sounds great in theory, very Michelle Obama “when they go low, we go high”, but in practice, I’ve found that taking the high road mostly just seems to mean keeping my mouth shut.
So I’ve written a lot privately instead, responding to emails from women in similar situations reaching out for support, someone on the other side to tell them it’ll be OK. I always respond to those emails because five years ago all I wanted was the same thing – a glimpse, one tiny glimpse showing that Olive and I would be ok. That I would figure it out. That I was capable of navigating what lay ahead because someone else had, too.
No one really writes honestly about divorce or infidelity or how to come through this brutal experience in one piece. And that’s the challenging part, we all keep our mouths shut. And by doing so, I’m not able to give to others now what I so desperately needed then.
Today, I’m going to try.
If you’re struggling with a marriage that has ended due to infidelity or feels like it might end soon, this is what I know.
Five years ago, on November 20, I got ambushed with a huge box of darkness and initially, that’s all I could see. That darkness blotted out everything else in my life. I was so hurt and then later, so angry.
These were all-consuming, deeply uncomfortable feelings and honestly, I wanted to run from them as fast as I could (maybe you do, too). But you can’t run from your own life and you can’t fast-forward feelings, so instead, I had to learn to sit with all of it – the all-consuming feelings and the shame and the logistical nightmare of separating one life into two. I approached the end of my marriage a lot like I did the middle – I bought books and researched and read articles and went to counselling.
What I found was that you have to feel hurt and angry to get to what comes next. If you try to rush these tough emotions or pretend they don’t exist, they’ll never truly leave. You can’t skip the shitty parts.
A lot of people get stuck here, I think. The only thing more terrifying than that anger is letting go of it. Not being hurt anymore feels like a tacit endorsement of one of the most horrific emotional betrayals a human being can experience at the hands of someone who was supposed to love them.
I remember that as time passed and people in our lives moved on and accepted the situation, I felt like I was being erased; it felt like the pain of what happened to me and Olive was being erased, too. For a long time, I struggled with the feeling that if I was okay, it somehow made what happened okay, and I was absolutely not going to sign off on that.
You may be wrestling with this too, and that’s fair. The fact is, you were hurt. Deeply. And what happened wasn’t okay and never will be. But at some point, that stuff just becomes too heavy to carry. At some point, you have to put it down.
One day you might start to feel that what happened was just …what happened. Without a story attached. A fact you can’t fight against. And then slowly, you can begin to let go. As the worst parts recede, the healing begins and you can start seeing that darkness for the gift it truly was.
I think I reached that point about three years ago. I’d had glimpses many times before then, but healing isn’t always a linear process. I’d bounce around between feeling gratitude some weeks and anger others, but one day I realized I could explain what happened without feeling emotional. I’d hear news about my ex and not feel any reaction. (I still feel frustrated when dealing with communication and cooperation and legal issues, but the rest of the time I just… don’t think about it.)
This takes time. Let it.
Most of all, know that at some point, as impossible as it might feel now, you may feel grateful.
In the early days, someone told me that one day I’d want to send the other woman a fruit basket, to thank her. At the time, it sounded absolutely ludicrous. I felt nothing but rage. But I’ve thought of that conversation so many times over the last five years; I’ve sent dozens of imaginary fruit baskets.
Because here’s the truth: I deserved better than this, and I wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone. But if I could go back in time, I would choose this divorce again and again and again. And whereas November 20 used to be a day I dreaded, it now seems more like a birth-day.
It’s been five years. I’m 35 and Olive is seven. She’s kind and funny; loving and loved. We have a beautiful, full, imperfect life, and I’ve built it for us from scratch. I chose a home, a car, a school for her, and work for me. She has activities she enjoys and friends she adores. For almost two years now, I’ve been supporting us singlehandedly – not by choice but I’m proud of it nonetheless. I’ve leveraged what used to be an occasional freelance writing gig into a full-time career. I’ve learned and grown and put the work in to move on from past hurt towards wholeness. I’ve found a relationship where the love and effort I put in is returned tenfold.
At every single step, I doubted myself. I doubted whether I was capable of doing it. and whether we would make it. A lot of the time I still do. Maybe you do, too.
But this post? This is your glimpse. If I could have seen today, back in 2014, I would have been crying for an entirely different reason. I would have sobbed with relief. Gratitude. Pride. I did it. And you will, too. You can, too.
Right now you hold a box of darkness. Soon you’ll see the light.